A Tale of Slow and Surprising Redemption

As a one-time crime policy wonk who drifted into other areas of interest and haven’t much kept up, I was startled and pleased by the radical change in conservative attitudes towards incarceration revealed in David Dagan and Steven M. Teles in their article in the November/December issue of the Washington Monthly. Sure, I knew that serious libertarians and some conservative evangelicals had, from their different perspectives, issues with the GOP’s lock-em-up-and-hope-they-get-raped attitude towards people convicted of crimes (one of the few George W. Bush initiatives in Texas I admired was an effort to provide services to the families of prisoners). But I figured the vast political capital Republicans had built up from this posture; the vested interest they had in claiming that more extensive and vicious incarceration was responsible for recent drops in violent crime rates; and the complicity of Democrats terrified to look “weak on crime;” would all prevent the Right from adopting a more humane and sensible approach.

It seems I was wrong, and that’s wonderful. But there’s a broader lesson in Dagan and Teles’ tale that is really worth thinking about: all the liberal exhortation in the world did absolutely nothing to move conservatives towards where they seem to be heading on crime policy. It took conservatives operating from their own “world-views” and ideological presuppositions to change minds among fellow-true-believers:

As Yale law professor Dan Kahan has argued, studies and randomized trials are useless in persuading the ideologically committed until such people are convinced that new information is not a threat to their identity. Until then, it goes in one ear and out the other. Only rock-ribbed partisans, not squishy moderates, can successfully engage in this sort of “identity vouching” for previously disregarded facts. Of course, there are limits to how far ideological reinvention can go. As political scientist David Karol has argued, it is unlikely to work when it requires crossing a major, organized member of a party coalition. That’s something environmentalists learned when they tried to encourage evangelicals to break ranks on global warming through the idea of “creation care.” They got their heads handed to them by the main conservative evangelical leaders, who saw the split this would create with energy-producing businesses upon whom Republican depend for support.

So let’s not celebrate the conservative reversal on crime policy too loudly or triumphantly. But it’s worth pondering on its own merits, as a sign that redemption is never impossible, and for what we can learn about the sometimes strange, twisted routes to bipartisan–and purely partisan–progress on challenges near and far. “The Conservative War on Prisons” is an absolute must-read.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.